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Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid holds a press conference in Kabul on Tuesday. Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

With the Afghan government and military no longer able to provide cover, President Biden risks the ugliest of exits from Kabul if he blows past his promise to leave Aug. 31.

Why it matters: The Taliban now controls the area around Kabul's airport. As the U.S. removes its final 5,800 troops — and shrinks the security perimeter they've been providing — the surest way to ensure the last soldiers and diplomats get out safely is through the grace of a grisly enemy.

The big picture: A Taliban spokesman on Tuesday repeated the group's stance that it will not recognize any extension past Aug. 31. That cold reality explains why Biden is sticking to his timetable, despite pleas from allies like the United Kingdom, combat veterans and outside groups trying to evacuate Afghans.

  • "Who wants to be the last man there?" a U.S. veteran nearly killed in Afghanistan told Axios.
  • Biden said Tuesday the U.S. is on pace to exit by his deadline, but that will depend to the end on the Taliban's continued cooperation, including access to the airport and no disruptions to the U.S. operations.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted twice on Tuesday about his calls to the NATO secretary general and Turkish foreign minister. Both NATO and Turkish forces have the potential to provide cover for departing U.S. forces.

The U.S. had about 2,500 troops in Kabul as of last month, with long- term plans to maintain a force of 650 Marines to protect the U.S. embassy.

  • When the government collapsed on Aug. 15, the Taliban encircled the lifeline out — Hamid Karzai International Airport.
  • President Biden sent in nearly 6,000 troops, and they've established a buffer and allowed its lone runway to reopen for evacuation flights.
  • Nonetheless, Taliban fighters operate their own checkpoints within eyesight of the Americans, and they could shut down the airport by firing mortars into the runway or tarmacs, or by shooting at departing airplanes.

Biden has committed to leaving by Aug. 31, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Tuesday: "The president has asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timeline should that become necessary."

  • CIA Director William Burns met with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on Monday, and Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby said on Tuesday that consultations continue.
  • In his speech late Tuesday, the president noted the Taliban itself could be attacked by ISIS-K, a bitter enemy of both parties.
  • "Every day we're on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport," Biden said.

What's next: Kirby acknowledged the risks as U.S. forces move toward the last outbound airplanes.

  • Not only soldiers but State Department employees who've been processing the evacuees would be on those final flights. There would be no U.S. troops left in Afghanistan to safeguard them when the last plane departed.
  • "It is all done in a very careful, methodical way, so that you can preserve as much capability to the very end that you need," Kirby said. The U.S. would try "to get our materiel out with our people," he added, referring to its last weaponry.
  • If it can't fit, it will be destroyed, potentially by Air Force fighters and bombers that can shoot from a safe distance.

Go deeper

Oct 14, 2021 - World

Taliban press Biden to release frozen Afghan assets as economy shrivels

Afghans wait outside a bank in hopes of withdrawing cash, watched by a Taliban fighter. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty

With the Afghan government and economy starved of cash, the Taliban are pressing their claim to the roughly $8 billion in Afghan foreign reserves that have been frozen by the U.S.

Why it matters: Afghanistan is barreling into a humanitarian crisis, and donor countries and international institutions have cut off the aid that accounted for some 75% of the previous government’s budget.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
40 mins ago - Energy & Environment

Key clean power provision likely won't survive in Dems' spending bill

A construction worker walks along a dirt road at the Avangrid Renewables La Joya wind farm in Encino, New Mexico, on Aug. 5, 2020. Photo: Cate Dingley/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A pillar of Democrats' plans to speed deployment of zero-carbon electricity is likely to be cut from major spending and tax legislation they are struggling to move on a party-line vote, per multiple reports and a Capitol Hill aide.

Driving the news: The New York Times, citing anonymous congressional aides and lobbyists, reports that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) has told the White House he "strongly opposes" the Clean Electricity Performance Program.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Fatal stabbing of British MP David Amess declared a terrorist incident

Police outside Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, England, on Oct. 15. Photo: John Keeble/Getty Images

Authorities have declared the death of David Amess a terrorist incident, hours after the Conservative Party lawmaker in the U.K. was fatally stabbed while meeting with local constituents in a church in eastern England on Friday.

The big picture: The Metropolitan Police has found "a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism."